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East Spokane pot shop gets OK to move, as video arcade that blocked it files lawsuit

UPDATED: Tue., Aug. 15, 2017, 10:24 p.m.

A new empty store labeled a video arcade could cause more headaches for an East Spokane pot shop in what some city leaders believe is part of a cat-and-mouse game aimed at forcing the marijuana store off a busy thoroughfare.

Smokane finally was allowed to open at a new location, 3811 E. Sprague Ave., on Friday after weeks of delay, caused by the opening of a Old Fashioned Fun Arcade 600 feet from the store. Spokane’s law at the time didn’t allow a pot shop within 1,000 feet of a child-oriented business, including an arcade.

But city leaders suspected shenigans, and temporarily lowered the buffer zone earlier this summer for arcades to 500 feet, specifically to assist Smokane in dealing with the arcade. Now, a second Old Fashioned Fun Arcade has opened – within the lower, 500-foot buffer.

Although the arcade’s attorney said the location has been open since late June, no arcade machines could be seen from the street on Tuesday in the office space that houses the business’ second branch.

The dispute is headed for the courtroom. The arcades have filed a lawsuit against the Washington Liquor and Cannabis Board, which gave permission Aug. 8 for Smokane to relocate from its original location on Ralph Street. It remains unclear who owns the arcades.

Marco Barbanti, the attorney representing the arcades’ owners, said renting the space was intended to silence criticism the first arcade wasn’t legitimate because it was located in an industrial park and didn’t charge to play the machines.

“We’ve opened up a second location,” said Barbanti in a phone interview Tuesday. “I’m sure you’re familiar with the expression, be careful what you ask for, you might get it. These people have maligned my clients.”

“How can they say we’re not legitimate? We’ve got two locations now,” Barbanti said.

Barbanti again refused to identify his clients, the owners of the corporations Rome-Warsaw Holdings and the East Side Syndicate Recreational Center, citing attorney-client privilege. Those entities have sued the Washington Liquor and Cannabis Board to block the issuance of Smokane’s new license in an action filed Friday in Spokane County Superior Court.

“Going to court is a way to force a dialogue,” Barbanti said. The lawyer again denied that any of the corporation’s officers had any involvement in the state-regulated marijuana market.

Those manning the counters at businesses surrounding Old Fashion Fun Arcade’s new location said Tuesday afternoon they didn’t know the game room had opened next door. Pinball machines and a foosball table owned by the arcade remained at the business’ other location just a few blocks away. Barbanti said the arcade’s caretaker, a volunteer, is remaining in the old office space for several hours each afternoon to work on bringing a rare tabletop Ms. Pac-Man machine back to life.

Barbanti argued, in a letter sent to the Spokane City Council in June and published in the pages of The Spokesman-Review, that Smokane had the opportunity to begin selling at its new location for several months before the arcade opened its doors in December.

In an interview after the City Council’s vote earlier this summer, Smokane co-owner Jay Low said Smokane wanted to move much earlier, but a paperwork hiccup and significant plumbing and sewage concerns at their new building delayed going to the Liquor and Cannabis Board for approval.

“We wanted to open, trust us,” Low said. “We just wanted to find the right people to do the work.”

On Monday night, Councilman Mike Fagan, who originally called for the law to be changed to assist Smokane, asked to rescind the emergency buffer zone reduction at a public hearing, saying he believed the law served its purpose. But on a 3-2 vote, the City Council voted to leave the reduction in place so that Spokane could review its approval process for arcades.

“Just because it helped the one person, doesn’t then make the law not necessary, because the same situation could arise,” said City Council President Ben Stuckart, before voting against ending the buffer reduction. The buffer will again grow to 1,000 feet between an arcade and a pot shop in December, unless the city moves to permanently change its zoning requirements for marijuana businesses in the meantime.

City Councilman Breean Beggs was absent from the meeting. City Councilwoman Karen Stratton abstained from the vote, because her husband, Chris Wright, has provided legal counsel to Smokane. City Councilwoman Candace Mumm, who initially voiced concerns about the reduction not addressing the underlying issues in the city’s planning codes, voted with Fagan to undo the emergency ordinance.

The Liquor and Cannabis Board, through a spokesman, and Low declined to comment on the arcade’s lawsuit. Low said his focus was on making the new location successful. The state gave approval for Smokane to move, but they only have a license for one location, meaning the previous storefront on Ralph Street is now closed.

“We’re just glad that we can proceed through all these distractions and obstacles, to better serve the public, with a better facility,” Low said.

A previous prospective tenant had sought to open a cannabis processor in the location of the second arcade, 3623 E. Sprague Ave., in 2015. Clinton Zuber, owner of the processing firm Zoobees Doobees, said he briefly looked at the space several years ago but opted for another location because the rent would have been too much. Zuber said he had nothing to do with the arcade or the companies behind it, and Barbanti said he wasn’t aware of the previous processor application.